November 11th, 2010
05:20 PM ET
In a typical day your mind is probably all over the place, worrying about your next appointment or what's for dinner. That's making you unhappy, according to a new study.
Harvard University researchers Matthew Killingsworth and Daniel Gilbert found that about 47 percent of people's waking hours are spent doing anything except being in the moment and focusing on the current activity.
Having a wandering mind is an achievement in the animal kingdom, but it comes at an emotional cost, the authors write.
"It is likely the same capacity that allows humans to learn from the past, plan for the future, and imagine things that might never occur, which are clearly afford very important benefits," Killingsworth said in an e-mail. "But like people's desire for food, it may be a tendency that at some level is beneficial but can cause problems (e.g. obesity with respect to desire for food, and unnecessary worry or distraction with respect to mind-wandering)."
People participated in the study, published in the journal Science, through an iPhone app that you can get at trackyourhappiness.org. More than 2,200 users ages 18 to 88 were contacted at random intervals. They answered questions about their present happiness, their current activity, and what they were thinking about.
Out of the 22 activities that participants reported doing, including watching TV and shopping, making love had the least mind-wandering associated with it. In all other activities, participants said their minds wandered more than 30 percent of the time.
What brings people the most happiness according to this study? Making love, exercising, engaging in conversation. The least: Resting, working, using a home computer.
It appears that only a small part of happiness - 4.6 percent - has to do with the actual activity you're doing, while mind-wandering claims 10.8 percent, the study authors wrote.
Perhaps traditions that emphasize living in the present moment have something to them, the authors suggest. In fact, next week CNNHealth.com will explore "mindfulness," a Buddhist concept that emphasizes awareness of the here and now, and how Western psychologists are using it in treatment.
The website trackyourhappiness.org is still active and growing, and Killingsworth encourages anyone with an iPhone to participate.
"Users can view their results and see the predictors of their happiness. More generally we hope our insights from the project can help improve people's well-being," he said.
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